Keep it simple
Do less and get more enjoyment out of the hectic holiday season
Crowded shopping centers, overspending, too many social gatherings and frenzied preparations tend to produce holiday dread instead of cheer. The mere mention of Christmas can send stress levels skyrocketing.
The antidote is to look beyond the superficial demands of consumerism and focus on what's really important during the holidays and throughout the year -- spending time with loved ones and taking time to enjoy life -- which is what most people want for Christmas, according to Meaghan Sheehan.
Citing a recent national poll taken by the Center for a New American Dream, Sheehan said 70 percent of Americans prefer the holidays to be less about gifts and more focused on noncommercial pleasures.
The poll showed that Americans are looking for gifts that allow them to save money and avoid the debt associated with the holidays. More than three in five Americans (62 percent) plan to give family members gifts that encourage them to save money, such as a savings bond or a piggy bank for a child, she said.
"The extreme focus on materialism especially during the holidays is a product of the consumerist culture that we live in."
Ideals that feed into consumerism include the belief that "more is better" and "brand names have cultural worth," she said.
To curb the rise of consumerism, Sheehan organized an alternative gift fair in Ithaca, N.Y., last year.
"Nineteen local and international organizations participated, and we raised $8,000," she said.
Last week, Sheehan teamed up with Betty Gearen of the Green House to present a workshop, "Re-creating the Holidays," during which a variety of ideas for simplifying the holidays were offered as part of the Sierra Club's monthly sessions on sustainable living.
Before changing your usual holiday celebrations, be sure to talk to your family and get feedback, said Sheehan.
"You need family support so people aren't let down or disappointed by broken traditions," Gearen said. If family members are resistant, try incorporating gradual changes.
"I am fortunate to have a family who believes in simplifying the holidays to increase our quality of life and reduce our impact on the Earth," said Sheehan, who plans to buy alternative gifts in support of charitable foundations.
"For example, I bought a week's worth of meals for a child through IHS for my sister-in-law."
Gearen also bought a meal ticket for a child at the alternative gift fair.
"The holidays have become meaningless for lots of us," she said. "My goal is not to go to the mall at all."
Gearen also suggested choosing a couple of special events to attend and opting for more time at home with loved ones.
"The people in my family are pretty satisfied. ... They don't need anything."
Gearen is also planning a family get-together where they can make gifts for each other. "That way, we won't be shopping separately for gifts we don't even need," she said. "Attending too many holiday gatherings can be exhausting, but doing something for others, like volunteering or donating goods to a charitable organization, can enhance holiday spirit and uplift us."
If you are away from family for the holidays, this can be one of the most meaningful and joyful ways to capture the spirit of the season.
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How to cut back
Here are tips from www.newdream.org
. For more tips, click on the "Simplify the Holidays" tab at the Web site:
For some people, the major stress of the season is entertaining. The first step in making holiday events more manageable is to give up on perfection.
» Host a potluck party instead of doing all the cooking yourself.
» Get together for coffee and dessert instead of a full meal.
» Delegate some decorating, especially if you have children.
U.S. credit card debt exceeds $600 billion. Consumer debt is growing at twice the rate of wages. It takes the average person four months to pay off holiday bills.
» Set a holiday budget that is no more than 1 percent of your annual income.
» In a large extended family, draw names and set a price limit so that everyone buys a gift for only one person.
» Give the gift of time: Plan a special event with a loved one such as a candlelight dinner, massage or an outdoor activity; offer a month of taking out the garbage or doing the dishes; set up a monthly lunch date with an elderly relative or friend. You could also give the gift of services, such as baby sitting, car washing or an outing to the zoo, museum or park.
For zero budgets
» Put together a book of favorite family recipes.
» Give a gift-exemption voucher so the recipient needn't feel obliged to get a gift for you.
» Practice "random acts of kindness" in someone else's name: Plant a tree, donate books to the library or support a young artist.
» Give attractive and meaningful articles from your own home.
» List 100 of your fondest memories involving the recipient.
Creating gifts can take no more time than hunting for a parking spot at the mall.
» Create a personalized basket filled with homemade muffins, cookies and jam.
» Make a rope swing, painted wooden blocks or a sandbox.
» Make a family calendar marked with important dates, such as birthdays, anniversaries and family gatherings. Decorate the calendar with family photos.
» Frame your best photographs. Or assemble a photo album, scrapbook or framed collage containing photos and mementos.
» Give pots of home-grown herbs and garden plants.
» Record interviews of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Ask them to discuss their memories of the person you plan to give the tape to, or your family's history.
» Prepare homemade soups or dinners that can be frozen.
Gifts for grandparents
» Arrange and frame a family tree.
» Have all of the children and grandchildren write stories or draw pictures of meaningful experiences or lessons learned from grandparents.
» Gift a gift that returns a present from your childhood or past. For example, if your grandmother knits sweaters each year, learn to knit or crochet a simple scarf to show your admiration for her years of work.
» Try to make time for a senior citizen who enjoys the company of your family.
Connect with your children
If you are looking for some holiday rituals, especially for the kids, here are some suggestions:
» Help them put on a holiday play or puppet show.
» Take them caroling.
» Make chocolates, a gingerbread house or holiday cookies.
» Hand-dip candles for use in a menorah, advent wreath or kinara.
» Help your children prepare gift boxes for the homeless (each box filled with food, treats and toiletries).
Be kind to the earth
Five millions extra tons of trash are produced between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day:
» Save paper by wrapping gifts with newspaper comics or paper bags decorated with markers, rubber stamps or homemade art. Gifts can also be wrapped in topographic maps, gaudy thrift store fabric or other unconventional materials on hand.
» Recycle gift boxes and ribbon. Save this year's wrapping materials for next year.
» Make meals with as many organic or locally grown foods as possible.
» If you are decorating a tree, buy a live one and replant it.
» Call the toll-free number on the backs of unwanted holiday catalogs and have your name removed from their mailing lists.
Gifts of charity
Consider more gifts of charity that touch the hearts of people who are less privileged:
» Donate to a cause in the name of a family member. Visit www.altgifts.org for ideas.
» Sponsor a child refugee, support a homeless shelter or protect an acre of rain forest.
» Spend a few hours performing volunteer work.
» Shop at alternative gift fairs that support local and national charities.
» Call a local social services agency and anonymously give food, clothing and money to a particular family in need.